The Vine

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Wisdom of the Deep

Since I began eating fish and seafood again, I decided to research to research the health and environmental implications of that dietary choice. Most of us know that the oceans are not as invulnerable as we thought back in the 60’s, and that overfishing has dramatically impacted the size and number of many fishes, and that pollution has made many unfit for human consumption.

Another question for me is probably not of interest to you consumers of animal flesh, and that is whether the fish in question is intelligent, has feelings, nurtures it’s young. “Intelligent fish?” you sneer? Hold on a minute, though. Some marine fish become sexually mature late in life, have a short breeding phase, and then go on to live a hundred or hundreds of years. What is going on there? I wanted to screen these fish for potential consciousness, especially after a saleslady friend of mine told me that although she ate seafood, she wouldn’t eat groupers because they were intelligent and nurtured their young.

I haven’t been able confirm her claim, but it is immediately apparent that nobody should be eating grouper at this point. Here are some of the resources I found, which makes it lots easier for me to eat seafood responsibly:

For example, Monterrey Bay Aquarium says ‘Orange roughy live longer than 100 years—the fillet in your freezer might be from a fish older than your grandmother! This deep-living fish, once known as the “slimehead,” grows very slowly and doesn’t spawn until age 20. Fishermen find them as they gather to spawn. At first, bonanza catches could be taken. But years of heavy harvest on the spawning grounds have decimated populations. Management is now in place, but it will take decades for this slow-growing fish to recover. Orange roughy are caught by bottom trawling, a method which can damage the seafloor, with unknown impacts on the fragile deep-sea ecosystem.’

Seafood Choices Alliance warns: ‘All commercially fished flounder in the Atlantic (summer, windowpane, winter, witch and yellowtail) are depleted and overfished. Landings have fallen by approximately 70% for summer flounder and 65% for winter flounder within the past 20 years, and by some 60% and 95% respectively for witch and windowpane flounder within the past 15 years. Landings of yellowtail flounder dropped approximately 90% between 1983 and 1995, and have since only partially rebounded.’

But, according to Environmental Defense ‘Channel catfish are the most commonly farmed fish in the United States. These omnivorous fish are raised in ponds in the Southeast, and are fed mostly vegetable-based diets. Channel catfish are a native species, and escaped farmed catfish do not appear to cause ecological harm.'

Much less is available about intelligence and emotional capacity of sea animals, with the exception of whales and dolphins, which of course should not be on the menu for many reasons other that it is the next most deplorable thing to cannibalism. The most that I have encountered about non-cetacean intelligence in the sea is about octopi and related cephalopods like squids and cuttlefish. These mollusks, relatives of brainless clams and oysters, have large brains, extensive sensory nervous system processing ability, learning capacity, and maybe even language and emotions. I have seen mind-blowing video of cuttlefish flashing color-changing patterns of rapid-fire diversity. Why? Especially when it seems to have nothing to do with simple camouflage, mating or hunting? I give these animals the benefit of the doubt for intelligence and don’t eat them.

Here is a really balanced look at cephalopod intelligence. ‘...the 1992 "look-and-learn" study, by neuroscientists Graziano Fiorito and Pietro Scotto at Naples, is the most controversial of all the attempts to understand learning in cephalopods. To test if O. vulgaris could learn a skill by observing the activities of other octopuses, the researchers trained one group to choose a red ball or a white one. When the trained animals reliably approached one or the other ball, untrained octopuses were allowed to watch. When later presented with a choice of their own, these animals not only selected the same ball more often throughout the five days of the trial, but also learnt more quickly through observing than the original subjects had under classical Pavlovian conditioning.

"The rapid acquisition and the stability indicate that observational learning in Octopus vulgaris is a powerful mechanism of learning," the researchers concluded (Science vol. 256, p 545). The finding was astounding not least because observational learning is considered by some to be a preliminary step to conceptual thought.’

This experiment has not been replicated in peer experiments (non-reproducible results) and how intelligent calamari are remains debatable. Of course one of the main problems is not how intelligent, but how differently intelligent they are, and we are still in the process of discovering how to ask and test this question. In other words, we humans are not yet clever enough to figure out how smart an octopus is. ‘Nuff said!


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